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Gluten Intolerance vs. Celiac Disease

Natan Rosenfeld Natan Rosenfeld April 22, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Gluten intolerance and celiac disease are two conditions which cause the body to become symptomatic with intake of gluten, a protein found in various grains (most commonly wheat). But although these two disorders result in similar symptoms, their effects on the body are very different. Let’s compare gluten intolerance and celiac disease and break down the differences between them.

 

How are gluten intolerance and celiac disease different?

 

Symptoms

 

When someone with a sensitivity to gluten eats a food item containing wheat, barley, or rye, they usually experience symptoms such as:

 

  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Someone with celiac disease who consumes gluten would experience not only a more severe version of the above, but most likely some or all of the following:

 

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • An itchy skin rash
  • Iron-deficient anemia
  • Cognitive impairment or numbness in the hands and feet
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Joint pain

 

How the body reacts

 

Eating gluten when you simply have a sensitivity to it does not cause any long-term damage to the body. While the symptoms of gluten intolerance can range from a minor annoyance to a bigger health concern, the body is not harmed permanently as a result.

 

However, someone who suffers from celiac disease experiences intestinal damage every time gluten is introduced into their body. Damage to the small intestine can result in serious health conditions such as:

 

  • Osteoporosis (bone weakening)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Miscarriage
  • Infertility
  • Malnutrition

 

How they are diagnosed

 

Gluten intolerance cannot be diagnosed through a laboratory test as one does not exist. However, you can determine if you have a gluten intolerance by cutting out all gluten from your diet and seeing if your symptoms ease up. 

 

Celiac disease, on the other hand, can be diagnosed either through a blood test or a biopsy. The result of a blood test will indicate if your body has developed an immune response to gluten, while a biopsy involves a tissue sample taken from your small intestine to detect any damage caused. If your blood test for celiac disease comes back positive, your doctor might arrange a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

Both tests require the patient to consume gluten prior to the appointment to get an accurate result. 

 

How they are treated

 

Both gluten intolerance and celiac disease are treated by eliminating gluten from the diet. But those with gluten intolerance can usually tolerate small amounts of gluten, while those with celiac disease must avoid even trace amounts of it. An individual’s tolerance to gluten can vary; some with a mild intolerance can continue eating small amounts of gluten without any adverse effects, while some are more sensitive and must completely cut out gluten from their diet. However, someone with a severe gluten intolerance doesn’t necessarily have celiac disease; only a blood test can determine that. 

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